Monuments of a Vanished Prosperity - Table of Contents

Introduction / Part I

Monuments of a Vanished Prosperity: Buffalo's Grain Elevators and the Rise and Fall of the Great Transnational System of Grain Transportation
Published in
Reconsidering Concrete Atlantis:  Buffalo Grain Elevators. L. Schneekloth (ed.). 
Buffalo, NY: The Urban Design Project and the Landmark Society of the Niagara Frontier, 2007, 17-42.

By Francis R. Kowsky

Note: This reprinting of the 2002 nomination excludes footnotes and includes some bold text and brown color text for easier reading.


The Historic and Architectural Resources of the Buffalo Grain Elevator Multiple Property Submission include eighteen significant properties. [Only the Concrete Central and the Wollenberg are listed on the National Register of Historic Places; however, all the other elevators are eligible for inclusion.]

The nominated resources illustrate the distinctive features of the architectural and historical development of grain transshipment at the port of Buffalo during the first half of the twentieth century.

During this period, Buffalo had the nation's largest capacity for the storage of grain in over thirty concrete grain elevators located along the inner and outer harbors on the Buffalo River and Lake Erie.

The concrete grain elevator represented the culmination of fifty years of development in grain elevator design. Joseph Dart built the first wooden elevator in Buffalo in 1842. Late nineteenth-century tile and steel elevators paved the way for the mammoth reinforced concrete elevators, the first of which went up in Buffalo in 1906. The last one constructed here was erected in 1954. This nomination includes Buffalo's sole surviving steel elevator.

Part I: The Development of Buffalo as a National Center of the Transshipment of Grain Prior to 1860

The American Grain Trade before the Opening of the Erie Canal

Wheat was one of the first agricultural products planted by European colonists in the New World. In colonial times it not only was a staple of life but also became an item of internal and foreign trade. By the time of the American Revolution, there existed a "bread belt" in the Middle and Southern colonies that extended northward into New York's Hudson Valley and westward into the Mohawk Valley.

Much of the corn, wheat, and rye that was grown fed homeland consumption, but some was shipped abroad, mainly through Philadelphia, to the West Indies and Europe. In 1765, Philadelphia, which was the leading commercial port in colonial America and the continent's most prosperous city, exported over 360,000 bushels of wheat. In the same period, nearly 110,000 bushels of American wheat began its journey to foreign ports from New York City.

From these small beginnings, grain was destined to become the premier American agricultural crop.

The westward movement of population accelerated after the Revolution, as "pioneers" moved into the territory beyond the Appalachians. Settlers put much of this newly cultivated land to raising grain.

In 1800, the Appalachians from Virginia to central New York marked the western boundary of American civilization. Before the middle of the century, the line had moved to the Mississippi River. By the time of the Civil War, the future great Mid-Western plains grain-growing regions of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Lower Michigan were under cultivation.

Raising grain on the frontier was one thing, getting it to market was another. Yet despite the slow and lengthy routes the products were forced to follow from farm to market trade in grain and flour from recently cultivated western lands became a flourishing business in the new republic.

During the Revolution and just after, a considerable amount of the wheat raised in Western Pennsylvania began to be shipped to Pittsburgh and then down the Ohio to the Mississippi to New Orleans. By the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, New Orleans had become the most important trading center for wheat, corn, and flour from the new farmland in the Ohio Valley and Kentucky. New Orleans would remain a major transshipment point for the export of western grain to Europe until the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825.

Even Western New Yorkers depended on New Orleans for marketing their grain. Grain (and other goods) bound for New York City from the western part of the state often went first south to New Orleans. There it was placed on ocean-going vessels that carried it to its final East Coast destination. This voyage of 3000 miles proved less expensive than the $100 per ton cost (a sum three times the value of the grain) of overland transportation.

As one can imagine, the transport of grain from the upper Mississippi region to New Orleans was long and arduous. Loaded onto barges manned by the "flatboatmen" celebrated in the paintings of George Caleb Bingham, barrels of grain and flour made their way down the Ohio to the Mississippi and then southward to New Orleans.

The journey was fraught with the dangers of shifting channels and other vagaries of wilderness river travel. And the return trip back north, against the current, could take up to three months.

Frequently, a barge owner at the end of his journey, rather than face an upriver trip, would sell his boat in New Orleans and take passage on a ship to Philadelphia or Baltimore. There he would purchase manufactured goods and a wagon to carry him home over an increasingly reliable network of interior roads. Such a round trip could take as long as six months. But from the late eighteenth century until 1825, many residents of the new western lands carried on this cycle of transport, which had more in common with the Roman world than with modern life.

Such journeys, however, became less and less difficult during the first half of the nineteenth century as road building came to supplement river travel in the country's interior. Important early westward roads and turnpikes were constructed between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, across the Cumberland Gap to Kentucky, and from Baltimore to Wheeling. In some cases, new highways allowed northern farmers to bypass the shipment of grain to either Philadelphia or New Orleans.

One such exception to the southerly movement of grain took place in New York. Much of the grain from the fertile Genesee Valley -- one of the nation's principal wheat growing areas -- went east to Albany via the Mohawk Valley Road. From there, boats carried it down the Hudson to New York City. Such trade contributed to the increased importance of New York City as a grain port.

Concurrent with road building, another factor that would figure prominently in later grain transportation came into existence. Steamboat service began on the Ohio-Mississippi route in 1811, when the first paddle wheeler left Pittsburgh for New Orleans. By 1820, steamboat freight and passenger service, an aspect of the American experience immortalized in the writings of Samuel Clemens, began competing seriously with flatboat traffic. By the end of the 1840s, it had completely replaced the older form of water transport. Steamboats also began plying the waters of the Great Lakes in the 1820s.

These new types of large vessels were destined to play a significant role in the success of Buffalo as grain port after the opening of the Erie Canal. Conditions were ripe for a major improvement.

Opening of the Erie Canal in 1825

When the Erie Canal was opened in 1825 with Buffalo as its western terminus, the course of grain transshipment from the west to the east altered drastically.

Located where the Niagara River flows out of Lake Erie toward Lake Ontario, Buffalo stood at the easternmost point of navigation on four of the Great Lakes and at the westernmost point of the new canal. (Niagara Falls, some fourteen miles down river from Buffalo, precluded a navigable link between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario and the direct access the latter would have afforded to the Atlantic via the St. Lawrence River.)

Henceforth, grain would move across the western Great Lakes to Buffalo, where, unloaded and transferred to canal boats, it was carried eastward 363 miles via the canal to Albany. It was then placed on vessels for the 150-mile journey down the Hudson to New York City. There it could be exported to European and other world markets. What had once been a three-thousand-mile journey was now reduced to 450 miles.

In 1825, Buffalo was a middling village of 2400 people, barely rebuilt after having been burned by the British during the War of 1812. The town did not even produce its own flour; the nearest gristmill operated eleven miles away in Williamsville.

At the beginning of its existence, the canal carried more passengers than goods, for it immediately became the vital water level link in a new highway of immigration to the West from the Eastern Seaboard.

But local leaders also saw Buffalo's potential as a commercial port as well as a place of human transit. By creating a large harbor out of the sand-clogged mouth of the Buffalo River (a process begun in 1819 by farsighted Mayor Samuel Wilkinson) and protecting it from the often turbulent open waters of Lake Erie by means of a breakwater, the city prepared itself to accommodate increasing lake traffic.

But by 1830, the transshipment of wheat from the West to New York City via the canal had become significant. In 1831, over 57,000 barrels of flour and more than 173, 000 bushels of wheat passed through Buffalo on their way east.

These figures steadily increased, and in 1846 more flour and wheat were shipped through Buffalo than through New Orleans. The United States Bureau of Statistics reported that for the year 1860 the "bulk of produce of the Ohio Valley had been diverted to the lakes and Atlantic seaboard; but probably one fifth of it found its way to New Orleans."

And the expense of moving goods had come down dramatically since pre-canal days; it now cost only $15 to carry a ton of grain from Buffalo to New York City (including canal tolls).

By the time of the Civil War, Buffalo, which also benefited from the construction in the 1830s and 1840s of a network of smaller canals in Pennsylvania and the Great Lakes region of which the Erie Canal became the hub, was handling over 7,000,000 barrels of wheat and flour annually. This, despite the fact that cold weather closed the harbor and canal during the winter months.

By the time that Buffalo's mayor Grover Cleveland became president in the mid 1880s, the Buffalo Express avowed that "Buffalo has long been known as the City of Grain Elevators."

Grain transshipment also stimulated other wheat-related businesses in Buffalo. An active grain market developed here as the city grew into a center of grain traffic. In 1855, the newly formed Board of Trade and Commerce proudly proclaimed that "Buffalo is now universally acknowledged to be the greatest grain market on the Continent, not even excepting the City of New York."

Indirectly, the construction of the Erie Canal also stimulated a nascent flour milling industry at nearby Black Rock, a community some three miles down the Niagara River from Buffalo. By drawing water from the Black Rock harbor, engineers were able to create here what, in effect, was an extended millrace. This waterpower became available for manufacturing in 1824, but it was not until the following decade that significant flour mills were constructed along its banks. "Black Rock, has already, by aid of her inexhaustible water power," touted a local newspaper at the time, "become the great flour market of the lakes, and is hereafter to be the principal wheat market of the west."

By 1839, lake vessels loaded with grain sailed down river and docked at the Black Rock harbor, where, by means of newly invented machinery, their cargoes could be unloaded in less than a day. Predictions of Black Rock's future as a major milling center, however, proved overly optimistic, and during the last half of the nineteenth century the area saw little expansion beyond the initial spurt of mill construction. Niagara water power proved unreliable (there were years when, due to low lake and river levels, milling had to be suspended), economic recessions took a heavy toll on development plans, and local millers experienced difficulty in obtaining high quality wheat.

In the words of Peter Sweeney, the historian of the grain trade in Buffalo, during the period from 1853 to 1907 "Buffalo milling made no sustained advances and at the end its position was not markedly better than at the beginning." Flour milling, which after the opening of the Erie Canal swelled into the premier industry at neighboring Rochester, did not come into its own in Buffalo until after the mid 1890s when hydroelectric power from Niagara Falls began to be transmitted to the city.

The Development of the Railroads

Together with the historic transformation of marine travel by steam power, the early nineteenth century saw the same force recast terrestrial movement. In addition to the Erie Canal and the steamboat, the railroad revolutionized the transportation of goods, including grain, in the early nineteenth century.

Indeed, almost from the beginning of its existence, the Erie Canal faced competition from the new railroad industry. Rail beds began to be constructed parallel to the Erie Canal in the early 1830s. At first, competition was small because early roads were built with iron rails that could sustain only relatively light loads. Furthermore, the early roads had no terminals for loading and stowing grain and other goods.

But with the introduction of steel rails and the steady improvement of trackside facilities, railroads began first supplementing and then drawing away business from the canal. Rail travel was faster, and unlike the canal, the railroads could run all year round; they did not shut down when winter ice closed the lakes-canal route.

By the middle of the century, when a number of lines had been absorbed into the New York Central, the rail link between New York and Buffalo was consolidated. The railroad had grown into a major player in the transportation of passengers and goods between the Atlantic seaboard and the Great Lakes region.

"This great route almost equaling in importance the Erie Canal," stated a Buffalo business journal in 1854, "and to which it already proves a formidable rival . . . has been yearly extending its operations until it now forms one of the most reliable channels of commerce between the produce of the west and the manufacturers and markets of the east."

Other roads, such as the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Baltimore and Ohio also built trunk lines to Buffalo from the older ports of Philadelphia and Baltimore. By the middle of the 1880s, twenty different railways started or ended at Buffalo.

Railroads eventually tightened their grip on grain transportation by investing in lake steamboat lines as subsidiaries and by building warehouse facilities and storage elevators on the Buffalo waterfront. Already in the mid-1850s, the New York Central had erected between Ohio Street and the Buffalo River what it touted as the largest depot in the world. This facility allowed trains to receive grain and other freight directly from lake vessels docked in the harbor. The road was also by then connected to the two largest grain elevators on the Buffalo waterfront.

In 1855, railroads carried twice the amount of flour from Buffalo that moved on the canal and by the end of the decade they threatened the very existence of the canal as a grain route.

Another spurt of railway development came in the 1880s, by which time the over the Niagara River to Canada had been constructed at Buffalo.

During that decade the city made generous land grants to railroads to encourage their expansion here. Six different routes connected the city to New York, including the New York Central, Lehigh Valley, and Delaware, Lackawanna and Western lines.

The transfer yards on the east side of town grew to the largest in the world and new terminal facilities greatly increased storage and warehouse capacity. The Lehigh Valley line alone created a terminal and ship canal at the Tifft farm that added two miles of dock space to the existing waterfront.

Joseph Dart and Robert Dunbar and the Development of the Wooden Grain Elevator and Marine Leg Conveyor System for Unloading Grain from Lake Freighters
As Buffalo's harbor became port of call to more and more vessels arriving to unload grain, it was perhaps inevitable that invention would be applied to the laborious process of transferring grain from lake vessels to canal boats.

At first, men, chiefly Irish immigrants, carried barrels by hand. Not only was this backbreaking work, but the slow pace was a weak link in the chain of improved efficiency of movement represented by the steamboat and locomotive. When the first bulk shipment of grain (some 1600 bushels) arrived in Buffalo aboard the Osceola, it took a week for longshoremen to unload the cargo.

It was Buffalo entrepreneur Joseph Dart (1799-1879) and engineer Robert Dunbar who applied the new technology of the age to the handling of grain. Dart had come to Buffalo from his native Connecticut in 1821 and set himself up in the hat and fur business. Dart, whom contemporaries described as a "methodical and industrious man," had an eye for good business opportunities.

As the grain trade began to develop in Buffalo after the opening of the Erie Canal, he turned his sights on this growing industry. "It seemed to me," he said, "as I reflected on the amazing extent of the grain producing regions of the Prairie West, and the favorable position of Buffalo for receiving their products, that the eastward movements of grain through this port would soon exceed anything the boldest imagination had conceived."

In 1842, Dart built the first steam-powered grain elevator. (It is probably more than coincidence that the first shipments of anthracite coal from northeastern Pennsylvania arrived in Buffalo via the canal in the same year that Dart built his elevator. Thereafter, the coal that fueled Buffalo's many steam-powered industries came in a steady flow by the waterway and later by rail.)

In 1843, when the schooner Philadelphia unloaded the first bulk shipment of grain at the Dart Elevator, it took only hours to lift the wheat from the hold. The man who made it possible was thirty-year-old engineer, Robert Dunbar, the unsung pioneer of grain elevator construction.

Born in Scotland in 1812, Dunbar arrived in Buffalo in 1834, after having studied mechanical engineering in Canada. At the time of his death in 1890, Dunbar was eulogized as "the father of the great grain elevator system." His inventions had made possible "all the present improvements of elevators," proclaimed the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser.

In addition to the Dart Elevator, Dunbar designed nearly all of the elevators that by the 1880s crowded together along the shores of the Buffalo River. The Evans (1865) [Illus.], Watson [Illus.], Merchants, Reed [Illus.], Wilkeson (1863), Wells [Illus.], and Bennett [Illus.] elevators are now long vanished and known to us only in photographs, yet they were the first landmarks of the new age of grain transshipment in North America.

The taciturn Dunbar -- a contemporary described him as a man of "a singularly retiring and undemonstrative disposition"-- enjoyed an international reputation for his remarkable accomplishments in Buffalo. Jobs for constructing elevators came to him from as far away as Odessa, Liverpool, and elsewhere in Europe and Canada.

Dunbar became associated with Dart in his grain elevator enterprise after having erected in nearby Black Rock at least one water-powered flour mill that utilized a new mechanized system for handling grain and flour.

In 1842, the two men undertook to erect the 50 by 100 foot Dart Elevator on a site near the mouth of the Buffalo harbor at the junction with a small subsidiary waterway called the Evans Ship Canal. (A bronze plaque placed there by the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society presently marks the location.)

By means of a steam-powered vertical conveyor belt made of leather or canvas and equipped with buckets, Dart could unload grain directly from the hulls of a lake vessel moored alongside his storage elevator.

Inside the ship, men who before this had carried barrels on their backs from boat to dock now shoveled grain into the conveyor belt buckets. They were the first generation of "scoopers," as the laborers—more often than not Irish immigrants or their descendants -- who unloaded the lake vessel cargoes in this way came to be called. (Locals skeptical of Dart's investment in the new technology taunted him with the jest that "Irishmen's backs the cheapest elevators.")

The grain they scooped was carried up this so-called loose leg to a scale where it was weighed before being distributed to large storage bins. There, grain would be stored until sold. At that moment, it would be drawn off through the bottom, raised again to the scale by means of a "stiff leg" conveyor system that occupied a fixed position within the elevator house. Finally, the grain "spouted" down into a waiting canal barge moored where the arriving lake vessel had docked.

The process involved the forces of steam power to lift the grain and gravity to spout it. Thus was born a new building type. An early observer defined it as "a collection of elevating, weighing and distributing machinery, placed in and over a building made to fit its size and requirements, this building being a collection of boxes, or bins, of greater or lesser size and depth, fitted for the receipt of grain at the top and for discharging the same through openings in the bottom."

The most innovative feature of the Dart Elevator was the long, vertical conveyor system that replaced human labor as the means of unloading grain from lake vessels. Housed in a tall wooden sleeve, the conveyor could be canted outward at the bottom of the elevator structure and lowered directly into the hold of a waiting boat.

When not in use, this loose leg conveyor belt was retracted by means of a steam engine to its original vertical position inside the elevator. A hood or cupola, some twenty feet in height, on the roof of the structure provided the extra room needed to store it upright. It was the most distinctive external feature of Dart's elevator and those that followed its example.

At first this pioneer "marine leg," as these boat-to-elevator devices came to be called was equipped with two-quart buckets 28 inches apart. Dunbar's original system was able to raise 600 bushels an hour, ten times the amount human workmen had been able to carry.

Soon, however, with improvements, the capacity of the marine leg rose to 2000 bushels an hour and the elevator's storage capacity increased from 55,000 bushels to over 110,000 bushels.

Dart and Dunbar owed a serious debt in their invention to miller Oliver Evans, who earlier had devised a similar conveyor system to handle flour and grain in his milling operation in Philadelphia.

While the mechanization of grain handling that went on inside the early elevators represented the application of new ideas to an age-old industry, the materials and methods used to construct the first elevators were not new.

Wood, a plentiful material in the Great Lakes basin, allowed for quick and inexpensive construction. (Dart also involved himself in the burgeoning Western New York lumber trade.) Heavy timber frames sustained these early structures that contained rectangular storage bins built on the traditional crib system.

In order to support the enormous weight of the stored grain (100,000 bushels weighs about 3000 tons), and because these elevators were located on mud and sand adjacent to the river, it was necessary to erect them on pilings. Typically, closely spaced log piles were driven deep into the soft earth to form a solid foundation on which the elevator could be raised. A basement course of stone or brick was laid on the pilings to a height of about 16 feet, above which rose a framed superstructure of oak, elm or beech. The internal bins were supported on a series of posts, struts, and girders.

With their exteriors covered with boarding, the first elevators resembled enormous sheds or barns. Their tall, ungainly proportions and steeply sloping roofs evoked a decidedly Medieval appearance.

Perhaps this is what attracted H. H. Richardson to them, for the great Romanesque revival architect, who had projects in Buffalo in the late 1860s and early 1870s, nurtured a keen desire to design a grain elevator.

Despite their old-fashioned look, the new Buffalo elevators increased the speed with which grain could be transferred from boat to barge and made it possible to store safely large of amounts of grain at the site. Dart and Dunbar provided the third element necessary together with motorized lake and rail transportation that brought the age-old grain industry into symmetry with vastly expanded scale of modern life.

By 1860, the Dart Elevator had spawned ten similar structures on the Buffalo waterfront and given the city a storage capacity of over one-and-a-half-million bushels. With an addition of sixteen more elevators by the end of the Civil War, Buffalo surpassed the grain commerce of London, Odessa, and Rotterdam to become the world's largest grain port. Without the invention of the versatile and efficient elevator, this meteoric rise would have been impossible.

"Grain elevators make ideal structures for the storage of grain," writes industrial historian Henry H. Baxter, whose ancestors designed many of Buffalo's later elevators. "In the elevator's bins, grain can be kept dry, cool, free from vermin, and safe from pilferage. Moreover, elevators make it possible to weigh and sample grain to determine the quality, quantity, and grade as a basis of payment."

In addition, Buffalo's early elevator operators developed the ability to dry and clean the grain they received here sometimes in less than optimal condition. Often the grain in ship holds became wet during the lake voyage. In order to prevent damp grain from spoiling, it needed to be dried before being put into storage.

Dunbar's Elevator had a typical drying facility (called a Marsh dryer) attached to it. The marine leg lifted the grain from the hold to a large metal surface some 800 feet square that was perforated with tiny holes. As the moist grain was raked across this surface it was dried by a blast of hot air from below. The grain was then drawn through a current of cold air to cool it before being shunted into a storage bin.

A system for cleaning grain shipments of chaff and other impurities involved dropping the grain into a large cylinder and drawing off the lighter chaff that rose in the air by means of a steam-powered exhaust fan.

A combination drying and cleaning system invented by Buffalonian George Clark was put into operation in the middle of the 1860s in a separate building adjoining the large Richmond Elevator [Illus.].

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